“Two cultures” and the talk that terrified me

I’ve mentioned in two recent posts that I don’t get nervous any more when I get up to give a talk. This is partly just age and experience, but more importantly, it’s because I figured out something unsurprising but important: that when I give a talk about my work, I know more about the subject than anybody else in the room.

I did admit, though, to a recent exception: a talk I was terrified to give. I think it’s the exception that proves my know-more-than-anybody-else rule*, and it taught me something I didn’t know about potential relationships between academics in the sciences and the humanities. It happened because I did the (to me) unthinkable: I gave the departmental seminar in my university’s Department of English.

You might ask yourself: how did I get there? The story nicely illustrates the contingent and unpredictable nature of an evolving academic career. Nine years ago, my fitness increased (which is the geeky way evolutionary biologists say they had a child). I went off on an 8-month parental leave**, and by coincidence, two other UNB professors did too, at about the same time. Both were in the English department, and we hung out with our babies and helped each other’s brains turn to mush somewhat more slowly than they might have otherwise. One of them, Randall, is a Shakespearist whose research includes ecology in Shakespeare’s plays. In addition to being an entomologist and evolutionary biologist, I’m an ecologist***, and so this gave us a second connection, an academic one – but it’s one we would likely never have realized without the coincidence of our simultaneous parental leaves (and there’s the contingency I talked about).

While our babies played, I talked with Randall about ecology in Shakespeare. As a high school student and as an undergrad, I took absolutely the fewest humanities courses I could get away with (Alex Bond does a nice job here of telling you what a bad idea that was). So I was extremely naïve not just about Shakespeare, but even about what constitutes scholarship in the humanities. I found myself getting interested, though, and so a couple of years later I suggested that Randall give a seminar in my Biology department. In due course, he did, on the subject of “Shakespeare’s Worms” – to the mystification of a few and to the delight of others.

But I promised you a story about the talk that terrified me. We’re getting close.

Another couple of years had passed, and I had begun work on my scientific-writing book. Since English professors and grad students (I reasoned) were interested in writing, and since one of their faculty (Randall) had given a Biology seminar, I suggested that I should return the favour by giving an English seminar. I even had a title I thought English folk would be interested in: “What scientific writing is: Reflections on the history, culture, and practice of composition in the natural sciences”.

This seemed like a fun and clever idea to me – until, that is, the planned date grew near. I realized then that in my entire academic career, I had attended exactly one humanities talk (Randall’s, in Biology). I hadn’t even been in a humanities lecture since my undergraduate children’s-literature course, 30 years before! And my one exemplar (Randall’s talk) was very, very different from any talk I’d ever given. For one thing, he more or less read the written version of a paper (which sounds like it would be deathly dull, but he did it with panache). For another, he used no visuals. Was I supposed to emulate this? Was it even typical?

I realized that I was the walking embodiment of (one side of) C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures: I was a scientist who knew little about the humanities and humanities scholarship, and for a long time I’d convinced myself I wasn’t interested. But now I was proposing to talk about the history of writing, and about style in scientific writing, to an audience for whom writing was (I thought) their bread and butter. I was going to know less about my subject, I decided, than anybody in the room.

How did this work out? Well, as I gave the talk, even I could hear the trembling in my voice. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, I kept backing away from the audience until I had chalk patches on the seat of my pants, and even my teeth were sweating.

But as we got into the question period, things changed. The very first question (or “question”) was from someone who told me I’d mischaracterized medieval writing, and I thought my worst fears were confirmed. I hardly had a chance to attempt an answer, though, before another member of the audience challenged the first one (and they had a lovely argument to which I was an enthralled spectator). Then there was a series of genuine questions, with obvious interest in my answers. And I realized that I did, after all, know more about my subject than anybody in the room. I had read quite a bit about scientific writing before and during the Renaissance, and I knew a lot first-hand about scientific writing now. That combination absolutely did qualify me to get up in front of my English audience and say things; I really did have something to offer an English department.

This blew my science-nerd mind; but it shouldn’t have. If I’d paid attention through my career, I would have realized that academics in the humanities know a lot of things about writing, but they don’t know everything. I’d have realized that while writing is one place science and the humanities intersect, the views from our two sides are different but very definitely complementary. And I’d have realized that we (in the sciences and in the humanities) can be very interested in each other’s perspectives.

I’m sure all of these (shockingly obvious) insights can be generalized far beyond writing, but writing’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot. So when my scientific-writing book sees the light of day (and I’m told it will be on Princeton University Press’s Spring 2016 list), you’ll find it lightly sprinkled with references to writers who are decidedly non-scientific (among them Gustave Flaubert, Kurt Vonnegut, and Barbara Cartland****). One early reader questioned whether an audience of scientific writers would even recognize these names. I think most will, but whether they do or not, they can learn from how these writers wrote, and how they thought about writing. I learned from the talk that terrified me that this works both ways: scholars in the humanities can also learn from how scientific writers write, and how we think about writing.

Writing is writing in some respects (although not in all), and we have much to learn from each other about it – if we have the courage to reach across the apparent divide.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) July 28, 2015

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*Pedant alert! I mean this in its original sense: prove meaning to test, as in a proving ground: you consider the apparent exception, and figure out whether it invalidates the rule, or whether in fact considered more carefully the apparent exception is actually consistent with the rule. The newer sense, in which an exception somehow automatically validates the rule (prove in the mathematical sense of give proof) is nonsensical and unfortunately taking over, leaving the language trampled and bleeding in its wake. Also, you kids, get off my lawn.

**In Canada, parental leave is relatively generous. My wife and I were entitled to about a year’s (combined) parental leave, at partial pay via the federal government, and in my case topped up to nearly full pay by my university’s very enlightened policy. My ability to take parental leave helped maintain my wife’s career in STEM, while also giving me a wonderful opportunity to be primary caregiver to our larva (which is the geeky way entomologists refer to their children, and yes, since you asked, I’ll stop doing this now).

***No, I promised, no more cutesy disciplinary ways of referring to having children. You’ll have to imagine how ecologists do that.

****You might think this is the only time these three novelists have appeared in the same document, but you’d be wrong. All three are treated, for example, in Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, and in the Wikipedia entry for postmodern literature.

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4 thoughts on ““Two cultures” and the talk that terrified me

  1. Manu Saunders

    Great post! Of course humanities and science have a lot more in common than many scientists think…hence my series! 🙂 http://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com/humanities-vs-science/
    I admit, when I finished my Arts degree years ago with no real career prospect, I thought I’d just wasted 3 years of my life. But, funnily enough, it took doing a science degree & phd to appreciate the value of what I had learned….now, as a researcher, I am so thankful that I have a broader perspective from all that humanities knowledge too!
    I love that you swapped talks with a humanities lecturer – I’ve often thought this would be a really great initiative at universities, but it might be hard to get people interested. Most schools/depts have their own in-house seminar series…imagine if they teamed up with an unrelated school to share stories every now and then?

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Pingback: Friday links: RIP Oikos Blog (?), Stephen Heard vs. an English department, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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